Use of Interest Rate as Benchmark

Many institutions financing by way of murabahah determine their profit or mark-up on the basis of the current interest rate, mostly using LIBOR (Inter-bank offered rate in London) as the criterion. For example, if LIBOR is 6%, they determine their mark-up on murabahah equal to LIBOR or some percentage above LIBOR. This practice is often criticized on the ground that profit based on a rate of interest should be as prohibited as interest itself.

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No doubt, the use of the rate of interest for determining a halal profit cannot be considered desirable. It certainly makes the transaction resemble an interest-based financing, at least in appearance, and keeping in view the severity of prohibition of interest, even this apparent resemblance should be avoided as far a possible. But one should not ignore the fact that the most important requirement for validity of murabahah is that it is a genuine sale with all its ingredients and necessary consequences. If a murabahah transaction fulfils all the conditions enumerated in this chapter, merely using the interest rate as a benchmark for determining the profit of murabahah does not render the transaction as invalid, haram or prohibited, because the deal itself does not contain interest. The rate of interest has been used only as an indicator or as a benchmark. In order to explain the point, let me give an example.

A and B are two brothers. A trades in liquor which is totally prohibited in Shariah. B, being a practicing Muslim dislikes the business of A and starts the business of soft drinks, but he wants his business to earn as much profit as A earns through trading in liquor, therefore he resolves that he will charge the same rate of profit from his customers as A charges over the sale of liquor. Thus he has tied up his rate of profit with the rate used by A in his prohibited business. One may question the propriety of his approach in determining the rate of his profit, but obviously no one can say that the profit charged by him in his halal business is haram, because he has used the rate of profit of the business of liquor as a benchmark.

Similarly, so far as the transaction of murabahah is based on Islamic principles and fulfils all its necessary requirements, the rate of profit determined on the basis of the rate of interest will not render the transaction as haram.

It is, however true that the Islamic banks and financial institutions should get rid of this practice as soon as possible, because, firstly, it takes the rate of interest as an ideal for a halal business which is not desirable, and secondly because it does not advance the basic philosophy of Islamic economy having no impact on the system of distribution. Therefore, the Islamic banks and financial institutions should strive for developing their own benchmark. This can be done by creating their own inter-bank market based on Islamic principles. The purpose can be achieved by creating a common pool which invests in asset-backed instruments like musharakah, ijarah etc. If majority of the assets of the pool is in tangible form, like leased property or equipment, shares in business concerns etc. its units can be sold and purchased on the basis of their net asset value determined on periodical basis. These units may be negotiable and may be used for overnight financing as well. The banks having surplus liquidity can purchase these units and when they need liquidity, they can sell them. This arrangement may create inter-bank market and the value of the units may serve as an indicator for determining the profit in murabahah and leasing.


Source: Republished with the kind permission of Sheikh Muhammad Taqi Usmani.